A Brave and Modest Nation

Owen Byrne owen@permafrost.net
Fri, 26 Apr 2002 18:57:58 -0300

Much as I try to resist militarism, this piece brought a little mist to my
eyes (the fact that over 100 Canadian soldiers have died in peacekeeping
duties since the last combat casualty brings me back to sanity):

Salute to a brave and modest nation

Kevin Myers
National Post

Friday, April 26, 2002

A photo of a Royal Canadian Air Force recruitment poster.

As our country honours the last of its four dead soldiers, we reprint a
remarkable tribute to Canada's record of quiet valour in wartime that
appeared in the Telegraph, one of Britain's largest circulation newspapers.

- - -

LONDON -- Until the deaths last week of four Canadian soldiers accidentally
killed by a U.S. warplane in Afghanistan, probably almost no one outside
their home country had been aware that Canadian troops were deployed in the
region. And as always, Canada will now bury its dead, just as the rest of
the world as always will forget its sacrifice, just as it always forgets
nearly everything Canada ever does.

It seems that Canada's historic mission is to come to the selfless aid both
of its friends and of complete strangers, and then, once the crisis is over,
to be well and truly ignored. Canada is the perpetual wallflower that stands
on the edge of the hall, waiting for someone to come and ask her for a
dance. A fire breaks out, she risks life and limb to rescue her fellow
dance-goers, and suffers serious injuries. But when the hall is repaired and
the dancing resumes, there is Canada, the wallflower still, while those she
once helped glamorously cavort across the floor, blithely neglecting her yet

That is the price Canada pays for sharing the North American continent with
the United States, and for being a selfless friend of Britain in two global
conflicts. For much of the 20th century, Canada was torn in two different
directions: It seemed to be a part of the old world, yet had an address in
the new one, and that divided identity ensured that it never fully got the
gratitude it deserved.

Yet its purely voluntary contribution to the cause of freedom in two world
wars was perhaps the greatest of any democracy. Almost 10% of Canada's
entire population of seven million people served in the armed forces during
the First World War, and nearly 60,000 died. The great Allied victories of
1918 were spearheaded by Canadian troops, perhaps the most capable soldiers
in the entire British order of battle.

Canada was repaid for its enormous sacrifice by downright neglect, its
unique contribution to victory being absorbed into the popular memory as
somehow or other the work of the "British." The Second World War provided a
re-run. The Canadian navy began the war with a half dozen vessels, and ended
up policing nearly half of the Atlantic against U-boat attack.

More than 120 Canadian warships participated in the Normandy landings,
during which 15,000 Canadian soldiers went ashore on D-Day alone. Canada
finished the war with the third-largest navy and the fourth-largest air
force in the world.

The world thanked Canada with the same sublime indifference as it had the
previous time. Canadian participation in the war was acknowledged in film
only if it was necessary to give an American actor a part in a campaign in
which the United States had clearly not participated -- a touching
scrupulousness which, of course, Hollywood has since abandoned, as it has
any notion of a separate Canadian identity.

So it is a general rule that actors and filmmakers arriving in Hollywood
keep their nationality -- unless, that is, they are Canadian. Thus Mary
Pickford, Walter Huston, Donald Sutherland, Michael J. Fox, William Shatner,
Norman Jewison, David Cronenberg and Dan Aykroyd have in the popular
perception become American, and Christopher Plummer, British. It is as if,
in the very act of becoming famous, a Canadian ceases to be Canadian, unless
she is Margaret Atwood, who is as unshakably Canadian as a moose, or Celine
Dion, for whom Canada has proved quite unable to find any takers.

Moreover, Canada is every bit as querulously alert to the achievements of
its sons and daughters as the rest of the world is completely unaware of
them. The Canadians proudly say of themselves -- and are unheard by anyone
else -- that 1% of the world's population has provided 10% of the world's
peacekeeping forces. Canadian soldiers in the past half century have been
the greatest peacekeepers on Earth -- in 39 missions on UN mandates, and six
on non-UN peacekeeping duties, from Vietnam to East Timor, from Sinai to

Yet the only foreign engagement that has entered the popular non-Canadian
imagination was the sorry affair in Somalia, in which out-of-control
paratroopers murdered two Somali infiltrators. Their regiment was then
disbanded in disgrace -- a uniquely Canadian act of self-abasement for
which, naturally, the Canadians received no international credit.

So who today in the United States knows about the stoic and selfless
friendship its northern neighbour has given it in Afghanistan?

Rather like Cyrano de Bergerac, Canada repeatedly does honourable things for
honourable motives, but instead of being thanked for it, it remains
something of a figure of fun.

It is the Canadian way, for which Canadians should be proud, yet such honour
comes at a high cost.

This week, four more grieving Canadian families knew that cost all too
tragically well.

 Copyright 2002 National Post